I’ve been playing Magic Duels (Free) non-stop since it was released this morning at around 8:00 AM Eastern, and even streamed the game a bit on Mobcrush. Overall, I dig it, but that’s coming from a someone who can’t get enough Magic the Gathering and has played the game most of his life. I’m the guy who puts up with how remarkably jank Magic Online has been forever simply because I love playing Magic. Maybe I let my imagination run a little too wild following our E3 preview, but instead of releasing something incredibly awesome, Wizards once again didn’t go all the way.
The best way to describe how I feel about Magic Duels on day zero of release is the end of Mike Ehrmantraut’s monologue about half measures from Breaking Bad:
To back things up a bit, we need to acknowledge that Hearthstone (Free) is the current 10 billion pound elephant in the free to play card game world. What started as a silly side project at Blizzard has since exploded into a proper eSport, a staple in online game streaming, and the free to play card game that seemingly everyone is playing- Particularly as the universal update hit in mid-April and the Android version followed. Airing commercials during the NHL and NBA finals has resulted in it being vaguely normal to see people playing the game on their phones when you’re out and about. It always kind of blows my mind to see a guy sitting at a bar playing Hearthstone, but, that just goes to show how huge mobile gaming has become. The point of emphasizing this is that Hearthstone has set the bar for what to expect out of a game like this, and even though a comparison between Hearthstone and Magic could be argued as apples and oranges, they’re both competing for the same interest space.
Switching gears back to Duels, this latest iteration is probably the best version of Duels of the Planeswalkers so far, even though they’ve since shed that moniker in exchange for the simplified Magic Duels. Much like other yearly franchises, the Magic games each year have gotten incrementally better, making reviewing them year over year sort of awkward because you’re often just re-writing everything you wrote before but focusing on the few minor features that further shave off the few rough edges that remain in the franchise. This year takes things a tiny step further, with a really cool deck building wizard that makes it way easier to make decks- Particularly if you’re a new player who doesn’t yet really understand concept like the mana curve, how to balance spells and creatures, and similar things. It’s all handled automagically, while still allowing you to make choices, and it’s handled incredibly well.
I also love the idea of the solo battles against randomized decks controlled by AI players of three different difficulty levels. In previous years, you kind of ran out of things to do as you unlocked all the cards and played through the campaign and were basically left saying, “Well, that was fun, I guess see ya’ll next year." In theory, this should provide loads of longevity to the game, as even once you’ve got all the cards unlocked, you’ll still be able to endlessly play against crazy decks. It feels a lot like playing Friday Night Magic in a way, as you never know what kind of ultra-random stuff you’ll come across. I’m only a day in, so it’s hard to say how true this will actually turn out to be in practice.
The biggest shift to the game is turning Duels into a fully free to play experience. In the past, Wizards has dipped their toes in the water of free to play with games that were free to download with various unlocks you can buy, but this is a full-on belly flop off the high dive. …And I’m really not sure if this is a good thing or not. The dream Wizards is selling is that in the future all of the Magic card sets that get released will eventually be incorporated into Magic Duels, so instead of effectively throwing away your collection year to year with the previous releases, you’re going to snowball your collection into what could amount to just a stupid amount of cards.
This sounds great, and if you read my E3 preview, you could probably tell my excitement for such a thing was sky-high. The problem is, the implementation of this is so mediocre that even this die-hard Magic fan likely won’t spend much, if any, money in the game. Spending habits in free to play games are highly personal things, and I have no idea how many people are on the same page as me, but here’s why I feel like this:
*Deep breath* I love free to play stuff, it is totally awesome how in the mobile arena we get so many incredible game experiences for quite literally zero dollars. I’m not sure there’s a single piece of entertainment property out there including books, movies, and video games that I’ve invested more time into than Candy Crush and I’ve done that all for free. For me, the value proposition of free to play stuff I end up playing a ton heavily relies on a feeling of permanence offered by the game- Both in the time I’m spending as well as the money I’m spending. In the case of Candy Crush, all of my progress is synchronized with Facebook and I can play the game, exactly where I left off, on literally any platform. If tomorrow I swear off iOS and high-tail it to the Android side of the fence, my years of progress in Candy Crush stays with me.
On the other side of the fence, I’ve spent over $1,500 on League of Legends, and I do it gladly because every champion I unlock and dumb skin I buy stays with me, and is always accessible regardless of what platform I’m playing it on, or even where I am. I can log in to my LoL account from a friend’s PC, a cyber cafe (or “PC bang" if you’re cool), or anywhere else and it’s all there. When I’m using the things I bought, I can play against anyone in the world. Sure, League of Legends could eventually cease to exist, but that seems about as improbable as Candy Crush just going away one day- At least gazing into the reasonably conceivable future.
Hearthstone is similar, I’ve spent a ton of time and money in that game because my purchases feel permanent. They’re tied to my battle.net account which I’ve used for decades now, and secured through two-factor authentication. Cards I buy in Hearthstone are usable on every platform the game runs on, an similarly can be used against anyone in the world. When I finished my core card set collection, I felt an immense amount of accomplishment, because I’ll have those forever.
Now, on to Magic Duels– The lack of some kind of similar cross-platform account is the game’s true tragic flaw. Yes, your collection does seem to sync via Game Center and is available across different iOS devices, but as anyone who has used any of the Apple cloud services knows- Never trust anything you actually care about to iCloud or Game Center. Nothing to do with the way the card collection is secured gives me the vibe that my cards will be there in the future. It’s troubling to be stuck on one platform too, particularly if they’re planning on having Magic Duels be the way to play casual digital Magic in the future. The layer of abstraction between Hearthstone’s “ok, this is on my account forever" and Duels’ “OK this is somewhere in my Game Center I guess somewhere" makes it hard to look forward to several years down the road when you potentially have multiple sets of cards you’ve worked towards- Who knows if Game Center will even still exist in iOS 10.
This feels like such a half measure, as the rest of the game is great. I love the idea of what they’re trying to do, but without a true cross-platform account-based system the vibe went from “Holy sh*t this changes everything" to “Well, I guess this is a slightly better version of Duels of the Planeswalkers that’s free to play." The lack of cross-platform compatibility is going to have a dramatic impact on multiplayer as well, as the competitive multiplayer scene in Hearthstone is what drives me to play the game and spend money. Currently, playing multiplayer Duels involves a lot of sitting at the Game Center matchmaking screen while the spinner does its thing. Also, always being trapped inside of the iOS player pool is never going to allow the meta game to fully mature as you’re never playing with everyone like you are with Hearthstone.
Will this get better over time? Of course, it’s inevitable the multiplayer scene will improve as more people start downloading the game, but the reason you can always find a match in seconds in Hearthstone is because the player pool is just ridiculous between all the different platforms the game is on. It might be pessimistic, but segregating all the platforms makes it feel like you’re almost never going to have all the stars align to, for instance, find enough random people searching for games at the same time to play any more than a few games of Two Headed Giant before your patience is tested to its fullest and you give up. But, hey, whatever, it’s day one, and hard to predict how multiplayer is going to pan out over time. I hope I’m totally wrong here, but historical precedence has shown otherwise, which sucks because vibrant multiplayer has become so integral to the longevity of these kind of games.
The other problem with the new free to play spin Wizards has given Duels is you sort of need to play through the brain-crushingly basic tutorial of how the game works to earn coins to buy packs. Sure, you could skip all this, but you’d really be screwing yourself out of some free packs of cards which you really need at the start of the game to give some kind of variety (particularly when it comes to rare-level cards) in your card pool. It was sort of frustrating that the first 30-45 minutes of my time in the game was me sitting there going “I just want to play Magic" trying to rush through the tutorials as quickly as possible to unlock the starter pack and open the store.
I understand a major purpose of the Duels games is to teach people how to play Magic, but considering this is a year to year series, I think some kind of pop up at the beginning that’s effectively like, “Have you played Magic before? OK, cool, here’s the 300 gold you’d get from the tutorial go wild buying some packs and playing the game" would’ve gone a long way. Doing “quests" to learn how instants work exclusively because you want then 10 gold feels … less than optimal, to say the least.
If this sounds like a heaping helping of disappointment, that’s mostly true, but I’m not disappointed because of what the game is but what the game could have been. It’s going to make reviewing the game supremely difficult, and something I feel like needs to wait to see how the game matures before being able to really give it a fair shake. Posting a review now basically disregards all the multiplayer, seeing how the meta game pans out, and whether or not the plans to add additional card sets are handled properly- Basically, you know, literally everything that’s important about the game.
So, yeah, I guess that’s a needlessly excessive amount of words basically explaining that as a sequel to Magic 2015 (Free), Magic Duels is a perfectly fine game. As the next step of digital Magic and the foundation of the future of Duels as a massive free to play game?
“No more half measures, Walter."